Sunday, April 18, 2010

Talking About Artyom With My Kids

Since Artyom’s story has come out I’ve been hyper-vigilant about the girls catching wind of it. I haven’t had the news on at all while they’re awake, and I’ve been careful about leaving the blog up where they may see it. I’ve been grateful for the tendency of restaurants to have their TVs tuned to sports channels. I’ve thought that I need to ask my dad not to have the TV on a news channel when we visit. I’ve wanted to keep them completely away from news that an adoptive parent would give away her child. Me, the grand proponent of speaking openly and honestly with my kids about the hard issues in adoption.

But how can I tell them about adoption disruption? About adoptive families that kick out their adoptive kid when biological kids come along? About adoptive families who give it less than 6 months before deciding it’s all too much? About adoptive families where the other children watch Sponge Bob while their adopted brother is “re-homed?” About adoptive families who make promises and don’t keep them?

Reminded in this post from John Raible of the ubiquity of the news about Artyom and the chances of someone else telling my children, and the effect of hearing about it out of the blue, I decided we needed to talk about it.

I started by telling them that I had seen a story about adoption on TV that made me mad and sad. “A lady adopted a 7-year-old boy from Russia, then she decided she did not want to parent him, so she put him on an airplane all by himself and sent him back to Russia.”

Zoe’s immediate and shocked response: “But she promised when she adopted him that she would love him and take care of him forever!”

“I know,” I replied, “that’s why I’m so mad and sad.”

We talked for quite a while about how Artyom must have felt on the airplane – alone, scared, confused, sad -- say the girls. And they think he must still feel that way, plus really mad at his adoptive mom. That's Maya's picture of Artyom as sad and mad (notice his hands are fisted in the "mad" drawing).

The girls wanted to know what was going to happen to Artyom, whether he’d go back to the orphanage or find another family. You can see Zoe’s note to God, hoping Artyom would find the perfect family who would never give him away.

I told the girls that a lot of people were really mad about what the mom did to Artyom. In fact, I said, Russia is so mad it wants to stop all adoptions to the U.S. Even as I said this, Zoe was shaking her head. What about the people who want to adopt from Russia? Interesting that she would think first about prospective adoptive parents, and not about kids not being adopted. She's obviously clued into the fact that adoptive parents are the actors and adopted kids are objects acted upon. (And this might be an area where Zoe and I will have to disagree – I don’t think a suspension of adoptions right now is a bad idea.)

The girls also wanted to know what would happen to the mom. They both think she should go to jail, my punitive little darlings! (I didn’t explain the difficulties of criminal charges in Tennessee, or I’m sure I would have put them right to sleep.)

We talked about how they felt about hearing the story, and true to the theme of the discussion, they both said they were sad and mad – sad for Artyom, and mad at the mom. After all, Zoe said emphatically, “A promise is a promise, especially in adoption.” I asked them if hearing about what happened to Artyom made them feel worried that the same thing would happen to them. They both said no, and I said, “I think it’s pretty normal for adopted kids to worry that they might do something bad and be sent away. Do you ever feel that way?” Again, the answer was no. Maya said, "You promised to love us and take care of us forever, and you don't break promises." Yes!

I wanted to emphasize that there was no way they could ever do anything that would make me give them away, so I said, “Think of the worst ever thing you could do, okay?” Maya says, “Kicking Zoe.” I said, “Maya, that’s a bad thing, and I wouldn’t like it if you did that, but if you kicked Zoe I would still love you and you would still be my daughter and I would still keep you forever.” Zoe then says, “Kill Maya?” Without blinking (that took some doing!), I said, “Zoe, that’s a bad thing, and I wouldn’t like what you did, but if you killed Maya I would still love you and you would still be my daughter and I would still keep you forever.” (And I really mean that, by the way. In fact, I recently said to another adoptive mom when we were talking about disruptions, “I promised forever, and I meant it. If that means holding my child’s hand in the death chamber when she’s executed for murder, then so be it.” I know it's easy to say when you haven't experienced it, but it is something I think about as a criminal law nerd.)

The conversations turned to promises between the girls that they would never kick or kill each other, and then off in a completely different direction.

Zoe said another interesting thing – I can’t remember what prompted it or when in the midst of this conversation she said it. She said, “It’s like he has two birth mothers now.” I couldn’t get her to elaborate on it, but I thought it showed how she has internalized her birth family’s actions as abandonment, even as we talk about the reasons they couldn’t parent her. The definition of "birth mother" doesn't rely on biological relationship in this formula; instead, birth mother = abandonment.

We’ll talk more about the birth mother issue later, because of course there are some differences between a poor, disempowered woman in China (or Russia) and an educated, employed woman in Tennessee who quite deliberately set out to parent. Zoe may know that in her head, but it certainly hasn’t made it to her heart. I also explained that Artyom’s birth mother was sick, that she couldn’t take care of him because she drank too much alcohol. Zoe said, “Why doesn’t she just quit?! Then she could take care of him.” (Hard to explain alcoholism and addiction to a 9-year-old and a 6-year-old – by the end of my explanation, Zoe was worried about drinking the communion wine! I'm thinking I'll definitely need a "do-over" on this one.)

I’m so glad we had this conversation. I got the chance to explain that woman’s actions before my kids heard another version on TV or, worse, from some kid in their class who’d probably suggest that I would put them on a plane back to China. I can’t believe it took me so long to remember the importance of inoculating my kids against wrong-headed views of adoption, of making a pre-emptive strike. How about you? Have you talked to your kids about Artyom, about adoption disruption?


Sue said...

Well, I don't watch the news, so I really don't know how much other people know about it. I only know about it because of your blog. So, no, it hasn't occurred to me to discuss it with my kids. It would be interesting to find out if their sense of permanence is as strong as Zoe's and Maya's. I think it is, but doesn't hurt to check.

I think in a way Artyom's adoptive mom is "sick" in some way, just as his birthmom is "sick" with alcoholism. We don't really know the whole story. Someone in their right mind doesn't do what she did.

malinda said...

Well, I'm SOOOOOO glad we talked about it, because we're at Mimi & Grandpa's house, and one of the first things Grandpa asked me, in front of the kids, of course, was whether I'd heard about the Russian adoption thing!

Maia said...

My little one is still too young to process this. But I do think that, in general, it's so important for a-parents to be talking about this - not only to our kids, but to the public at large - if only to combat the idea that what happened to this child is acceptable in any way. I think that when stories like this reach the news, it reflects back onto every adoptive family - feeds people's worst assumptions about adoption and adoptive children and places our children in that "second best" mode again. Asserting that this was not the child's fault, and that we, as adoptive parents are appalled by this woman's actions, helps combat the idea that our families are automatically any less permanent than biologically connected families.

Melissa P. said...

I had this conversation with Joie very early in the development of the news story (because I was worried she'd hear it from others and spend a whole school day stewing over it) and introduced it the same way you did. And she reacted just like your girls did, including picking up on the 2nd abandonment issue and wanting the adoptive mom to go to jail. Also similarly, she expressed no fears about the same thing happening to her: "I've already gotten in trouble, and I'm still here!" :)

LisaLew said...

Malinda - It sounds like you handled this quite well. These are situations that our children will hear from others, often who are uninformed. It is hard, sometimes, to assess at what developmental level to discuss which topic. I like the use of paper and pen with the discussion, so they can accurately note their feelings.

Diane said...

Malinda- How funny that you also initially chose protection over discussion. I also needed a strong reminder ;)Even with my precautions my oldest had already caught a clip on TV somehow.

Thanks to your girls for their artwork. So telling.

Sue said...

We did talk about it over lunch today. My girls also have no worries that I would send them back even if they did something very bad. They had not heard about it.

When my youngest first came home, I think her big sister talked about sending her back. (It was rough few months at first.) So, of course I told her that I could not do that. Perhaps she remembers...

Antinette said...

We've thought about it, but our daughter is much younger than your girls and initially chose not to - we too have been vigilant about the news. I appreciated Scott Simon on NPR weekend edition on Sunday- he prefaced his story about Artyom by saying, "if you have adopted children in the room, you may want to turn this off, etc."

So, all this vigilance on our part and we take our daughter to a specialist on Tuesday that we've never met to evaluate a medical issue. The first thing this woman brings up after asking, "why did it take so long for you to get her after you picked her out?" (Don't get me started on that....) She says, with my little one right there, "so what do you think about that woman that sent her adopted son back to Russia?" I could have died- not an appropriate place or time to have this discussion. I shut her up and then we talked with our daughter, who surprisingly didn't hear the exchange.

I think you were right to be pro-active, you never know what they will hear...

Anonymous said...

So if I understand this correctly, the sentiment around here is that:

It's okay for the birth parents to give up their child, but not okay for adoptive parents to give up their child.